I wrote this the day after the SWP emergency conference and Nina Power’s Hour of Power that reflected on two years fighting in court for Alfie Meadows and Zak King.
Man Down: There is a need for a “creeping feminism” that can revenge the rapes.
The rapes, in this world, they don’t seem to ever stop, and so we can never stop howling in outrage, never stop thinking and talking about rape, nor yet be free from wanting revenge. Do you remember how, in 2011, there was an extraordinary hit single that some people tried to ban, in which a fictional black woman shot her rapist “in front of a big ol’ crowd”, and she sang the spine-tingling sound of her own vindicatory drum-roll, ram-pa-pa-pum, ram-pa-pa-pum … Man Down? Other than this, how many mainstream rape revenges are there in our imaginations? I can only think of Thelma and Louise, whose rapist dies in the car-park. There, the revolt against male oppression inside and outside the home has not yet become revolutionary at the point where they drive off the canyon—but one cop is certainly changed forever.
In Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s decidedly un-mainstream Baise-Moi (2000), it seems that gaining revenge for the full quantum of violence Manu and Nadine have experienced is impossible, at least, when pursued via sexual means behind closed doors. But Baise-Moi still strikes fear into men’s hearts, and for that I love it.
These four women are all ‘bandits’, though, who come unglued from the world. My hunch is that truly daring to want what you desire (to take Žižek’s phrase) will mean keeping the demand for vengeance firmly glued to a collective world, even if the price can be personally exacted. More interesting, then, has been the real-life example set by Nevin Yildirim in Yalvaç, Turkey, late last year, who calmly handed herself into the police once she had avenged herself on her rapist by cutting his head off and dropping it in the town square. “Don’t play with my honor!” she is reported to have added, as it rolled towards a café. She cooperated as she was marched away. What makes Yildirim’s courage so incredible is this willingness not to exit the world whose logic she has ruptured. I want, somehow, to reach her, to make it so that she is not alone. Rape by its very nature keeps us alone. I am afraid to imagine all the things that have been said to the Socialist Workers Party member ‘W’, the woman who brought to light what Martin Smith did to her years ago, a rape whose consequences are still percolating now.
Nina Power was not speaking specifically about rape on The Hour of Power last weekend when she induced tears via Resonance FM’s radio-waves, asking in the aftermath of Alfie Meadows and Zak King’s trial, if justice is not indeed another name for revenge. “There are those people I want to exit existence, which is not the same as wanting them dead”.
“It is no surprise that governments prefer secret courts… The human element that surrounds the world of the court, the world of colour, of love, of affection, of mutual aid, of support, threatens it, not because it is peaceful, but precisely because it has the power to be anything but.”
It is the form of our violence, which Žižek has argued is never necessary, but always legitimate, which we need to think about: what would ‘an eye for an eye’ mean (after all, we cherish anti-violence, and we desire no more), for us? And for all those who have been brutalized and continue to be brutalized, for Nirbhaya, or for Kimani Gray (shot dead in East Flatbush last weekend)? For Brandy Martell (to replicate the Lies collective’s list of the “recently fallen, whose memories serve to remind us of the urgency of struggle”), for Esme Barrera, Paige Clay, Anna Brown, Mark Aguhar, Shelley Hilliard, Marilyn Buck, Shaima Al-Awadi, Amber Lynn Costello, Deoni Jones, Hatice Firat, Josefina Reyes, Marisela Ortiz, Tyra Trent, and far too many more?
As James Butler pointed out in conversation with Nina Power, in the age of happy-clappy ‘Like Feminism’ it is generally deemed impossible that stars or the ‘successful’ might have a vengeful axe to grind. In keeping with this incredulity, already aired in relation to Eminem and later in relation to Chris Brown’s abuses, not everyone familiar with the sound of Man Down on the radio actually realized that Robyn Fenty (Rihanna)’s persona kills this “man”, specifically because he rapes her, in fact, this detail is largely only explicit in the video clip. All she says is “If you play me for a fool, I will lose my cool, and reach for my fire-arm”, where, needless to say, “play me for a fool” is a pretty dire understatement for the systemic sex oppression she is otherwise casting light upon. But then, “playing her for a fool” is so often the phrase in the mouths of the “man’s” apologetic friends—isn’t it?—one possible toned-down account of what “he” really did, a euphemism for his violence, and for this reason, a preclusion of his ever having to confront real justice. In this sense, it makes sense to say, yes, reach for your firearm when men “play” us, comrades: we know what playing actually means, and we are not fooled.
Incidentally, nothing about the visual supports for Man Down suggests “losing her cool” at all. Those who condemned it (the Parents Television Council and others) knew this, taking umbrage above all at a representation of “premeditated” retaliation. (She should presumably have “romanticized”, instead, recourse to the police: ideally, the supremely helpful South Wales constabulary, or New York’s Officer Gilberto Valle?) These reactionaries were unwittingly picking up, though, on a tension in the lyrics between a heat-of-the-moment justification, and a (far more subversive) crystalline telos that is undeniably feminist, more action-oriented, too, than what Robin James has convincingly characterized as goth- or shadow-feminist about Rihanna’s art-works about domestic violence (‘Rihanna’s Unapologetic Shadow Feminism’, Nov 2012).
The recurrent lyric “why did I pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull the trigger?” rubs our faces in the correlate question, why did I have to pull the trigger (and alone)? Indeed, tragically, women and allies in general are largely absent from the world after this event: the maternal last resort, Mama, Mama, is all we’ve got. So, Rihanna’s articulation of distress stems, yes, partly from her contemplation of her attacker’s death, but primarily from mourning her own loss of community. The point of gallows speeches is often to muster solidarity even as one declares guilt, but Rihanna has to confront her total loneliness at the moment where it should be clear she is not the perpetrator, the originator of this violence. Who will stand by her? Nobody. Although she rhetorically declares “I didn’t mean to lay him down”, she is lamenting, not the act of revenge per se, but the fact that she will be caught. Ultimately Rihanna evokes a chilling apprehension of this isolated world in which she now finds herself, devoid of solidarity or public justice for women.
“Oh lord, have mercy, now I am a criminal,
Tell the judge, please give me minimal,
I’ll run out of town, dem can’t see me now.
O Mama, Mama, I just shot a man down…”
In the five-and-a-half-minute video, the revenge killing takes place as a flash-forward in the minute before the music begins in earnest, with dream-like clarity, to the muted sounds of the ocean and an urban pedestrian thoroughfare. Rihanna has been standing at a window, waiting. Then, after her index finger moves, down on the station square, the rapist collapses in a pool of blood that swiftly leaks from his head while people scatter in terror. Rihanna’s face looks stricken, but not shocked, regretful, but not repentant.
In the manner of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, the narrative doubles back to explain how we got to this juncture. A woman in a Jamaican village, shown to be beloved of everyone in a smiling community, walks the rounds, sips on Coconut Water, and eventually goes out dancing, where she is raped outside the club (I try to ignore the product placement). It’s an amazing offering, expressing the relentless, historic force of an insufficient yet (for Rihanna) necessary justice, all through the self-avenging victim’s sorrow for a life she has had to end. Rihanna’s character’s tormented words are: “What started out as a simple altercation/Turned into a real sticky situation/ Just thinking on the time that I’m facing/ Makes me wanna cry…/ ‘Cause I didn’t mean to hurt him,/ He could’ve been somebody’s son./ And I took his heart when/ I pulled out that gun(ram-pa-pa-pum, ram-pa-pa-pum, man down)”. There’s no stopping that drum of cold revenge. And this last claim for responsibility, “I took his heart”, frames the final limit of Rihanna’s “victimhood”. It demonstrates how it is true that she “didn’t mean to hurt him”, because the violence was wrought by, or at least through, his body—she is pointing out that, premeditated or not, she didn’t mean anything. This shouldn’t be her problem. Thus, for me, the whole thing is an object lesson in philosophically clarifying one’s grief over eliminating the males who grew up on rape culture, whose crimes are never wholly incomprehensible (and who inevitably are “somebody’s son”).
And sometimes they were “comrades” until now, and often, they are formally leaders. But it shouldn’t be so hard, I don’t think. We must cry for them, but let them disappear. Perhaps we have forgotten that it is, in reality, an unutterably modest requirement, that one be obliged to manage, yes, an entire career in politics with one’s dick in one’s pants, except where enthusiastic consent is absolutely clear. Perhaps we have lost the ability to see that not raping anybody, ever, is not an eccentric standard, not an unreasonable condition for participation. In India, councilors and congressman who rape are being collectively beaten to a pulp. In the US and the UK, however, rapists routinely succeed in destroying social movements. The pain that has been lived by so many people, who trusted each other, whose organizing structures and spaces were rendered unsafe, beggars belief.
In the UK, the Socialist Workers’ Party’s Central Committee has now so badly mishandled the case of a rape by one of its members that the whole party now appears to have imploded, following an extremely traumatic process of internal contestation, resignations, courageous struggle by IDOOP, and most recently, the sinister degeneration at an emergency conference. Little can be said by someone outside the party, who is nevertheless grieving, and not gloating—grieving, for these idiots, the rapists and their inflexible apologists with authority, who have scarred and betrayed thousands of people.
There is a guiding principle, many of us feel, that isn’t hard to grasp: if someone thinks that you have raped them, then you simply cannot lead anymore. You cannot lead anyone or anything—with immediate effect. We must be unapologetic if insistence on this principle brings the whole order crashing down in the sand of history. Martin Smith, an accused rapist, should have disappeared. Instead, he received a “Disputes Committee” write-off and a standing ovation. Well, at this point, it’s man down, and at what cost! People I love have lost their minds over this cultish showdown from their leadership; others are heartbroken.
Lizzie Borden’s wonderful Born in Flames fantasizes a women’s army spearheading women’s struggle against the persistent “post-revolutionary” rape culture of a “socialist democracy” in America. How often do women figuratively (or literally) shoot down those who rape them in public? How can we make it so that the man does come down? What else necessarily has to come down with ‘him’? These questions were asked and answered by Mahasweta Devi when she re-wrote the figure of Draupadi from the Mahabharata as the tribal Naxalite woman Dopdi, who burns out the prince’s eye-sockets, stark naked, bruised and bleeding from her vagina under a vomiting moon. If we consider Dopdi’s “indomitable laughter”, I feel we may find that we do know what has to go, if we are to get justice. The answer is, the whole thing, the whole damn thing, by which I mean, all vestiges of the pretense that it’s OK—that core aspects of social relations are OK. Since all organizations harbor rape, all organizations will have to be reinvented such that the devastation and the damage it wreaks remain always within view.
It should not be possible for a self-designated revolutionary to utter the phrase “creeping feminism”. It should not be possible for Alexander Callinicos or anyone to re-frame a crisis about rape as the upstart intrusion of “undemocratic” “autonomism”. Ultimately, though there will always be ‘nice guys’ around who want to be on the side of gender liberation, as long as they conceive of this as “defending” what is good about existing structures, and building “renewal” in the place of the rot, they do not understand the simple, undeniable need for revenge. I, too, want the struggle for freedom from capital to be united and powerful. But that’s why I think this “bad apples” discourse is insufficient. In the end, as it is men who rape, why do we allow men anywhere near leadership positions in our revolutionary organisations? It is time to grieve these assholes, aspects of whom we have loved, and to get them out of the way.